The Gray Market: The Unknown Cost of Keeping Art in Museum Storage (and Other Insights)

Our columnist asks why it's a museum taboo to talk about the value of art kept in reserve, and questions how we measure mega exhibitions.

Museum of Modern Art director Glenn Lowry. Photo Patrick McMullan.

Every Monday morning, artnet News brings you The Gray Market. The column decodes important stories from the previous week—and offers unparalleled insight into the inner workings of the art industry in the process.

This week, stories proving that what we don’t see can shape opinions as much as what we do see…


On Wednesday, Michael O’Hare, a professor of public policy at UC Berkeley’s Goldman School, waded into the still-smoldering controversy over the Berkshire Museum’s deaccession plan in order to address what he sees as a much larger, more consequential problem: the behemoth number of inactive works of art shuttered away in institutional storage.

At major museums, O’Hare estimates that as much as 90 percent of holdings are effectively on ice like a severed finger at any given time. In response to SF Chronicle art critic Charles Desmarais’s recent assertion that “cultural value, as opposed to monetary value, is the only worth of the objects in museum collections,” O’Hare asked in his piece, “Aside from maybe someday appearing in a scholarly article… just how are these works creating cultural value if no one is looking at them?”

O’Hare’s argument would affect more than just the Berkshire brawl. Obviously, the rhetorical trench warfare over the Met’s revised admission policy continued this week. (Felix Salmon fired a numbers-based mortar toward the museum on Wednesday.) MoMA director Glenn Lowry even knowingly took a step toward the killing fields when he declared on this week’s episode of In Other Words, the Art Agency, Partners’ podcast, that museums…

“…should deaccession rigorously in order to either acquire more important works of art or build endowments to support programming…. It doesn’t benefit anyone when there are millions of works of art that are languishing in storage…. We would be far better off, in my opinion, allowing others to have those works of art that might enjoy them, but even more importantly, converting that [resource] to… support public programs, exhibitions, publications.”

Lowry’s advance here—applauded by O’Hare in a brief blog post—is about more than just stumping for museums to edit their holdings via sales. He’s also suggesting that institutions consider sanctioning a new use for the proceeds: bolstering their endowments so that the added revenue could be funneled into museum programming and publishing. (Note: This is not an official policy change by MoMA, only a personal opinion expressed by Lowry.)

As a reminder, the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) only allows member institutions to plow deaccessioning proceeds into new acquisitions. The Alliance of American Museums (AAM) is slightly more permissive, in that it also approves of channeling deaccessioning proceeds into the maintenance of existing works in the permanent collection.

All of which leads us to a little-known and less-discussed quirk of institutional accounting that O’Hare touches on at the end his SF Chronicle op-ed: With only a few exceptions, art museums refuse to put monetary values on their collections in their publicly available financial disclosures. As he describes it in an earlier long read for Democracy, “When [a museum] buys a painting, there’s an expense, and then it just disappears [from the balance sheet], as though they bought lunch for everyone and ate it.”

Why is this the standard? To invoke Desmarais’s earlier contention, it’s a way of arguing via the sorcery of accounting that something worth money outside the museum magically transforms into something only worth culture thereafter.

No matter where you stand on deaccessioning policy, this practice is objectively absurd. Even for people who take the AAMD and AAM’s guidelines as sacred texts, their member institutions still have full blessing to sell works from the permanent collection, i.e. to capitalize on their monetary value. The only caveat is what can be done with the cash.

All of which means that we’re having an incomplete conversation about museum finances every time a subject like the Met’s new admission policy comes up—and a massively incomplete one at that.

Based on educated triangulation, O’Hare estimates that the Art Institute of Chicago’s collection, which comprises over 260,000 objects, could be valued at $35 billion. The Met lists upwards of 452,000 works in its online records. If we were to assume the same average per-work value from O’Hare’s AIC estimate, then the Met, with over 452,000 objects listed in its collection online, could be holding just shy of $61 billion in art. And by his 90-to-10 storage-to-exhibition ratio, at all times just under $55 billion of it would be walled off from visitors like the works were leaking uranium.

That possibility changes the debate on museums and their business decisions—or at least, it should. We can argue about the resulting best practices, whether that means establishing long-term collection-sharing agreements (like the one formally announced between LACMA and the Autry this week) or selectively deaccessioning to, say, fund free admissions forever. But let’s at least seriously consider how billions of dollars in stored art might be able to help solve some of the crises afflicting art museums around the world. Otherwise, we’re fighting these battles (and each other, for better or worse) with one eye closed.

[San Francisco Chronicle]

David Zwirner. Courtesy of David Zwirner.


Just ahead of the opening of his New York 25th anniversary exhibition this past Saturday, David Zwirner revealed that he will debut a new Chelsea flagship location in the autumn of 2020. In a break from precedent on all of his existing spaces, architectural duties on the project will NOT be handled by his close friend and frequent collaborator Annabelle Selldorf (who, let’s be honest, at this point needs more gallery work like the Dalai Lama needs anger-management training).

Instead, the five-story, $50 million building will be designed by none other than Renzo Piano, the architect famed in the art industry for his work on museums ranging from the new Whitney and the Menil Collection to the Fondation Beyeler (not to mention a menu of pricey institutional expansions around the globe).

Zwirner’s planned new location stands as Piano’s first foray into commercial galleries. The art dealer attributed the choice to Casco, the developer behind the larger project of which his space-to-come will be only a part. (Per Robin Pogrebin, “The gallery will be connected to Casco’s residential tower, but it will be a separate structure, with three floors of galleries.)

Whether or not this is actually the decision’s genesis hardly matters. To me, the important point is this: However Piano ended up attached to David Zwirner 2020, his unprecedented involvement represents the next logical step in the museum-ification of blue-chip galleries.

Remember, Hauser & Wirth’s 100,000 square-foot Los Angeles complex already offers a multi-use smorgasbord that, no matter the time on the clock, makes many small institutions look like they are only ever open at amateur hour: multiple pristine gallery spaces, a renowned restaurant run by a name chef, a full events and education program, an Artbook DAP showroom, a gift shop “with a focus on provenance and source,” even an urban garden complete with “a chicken house and run for the restaurant’s 11 rare-breed chickens.”

Beyond sheer sprawl and exotic fowl, the commercial elite of the gallery sector also continue their march on museums by presenting blockbuster historical exhibitions by Picasso and other dead giants, many of them overseen by former or even current curators at prestigious institutions. Even their in-house publishing arms rival, if not surpass, their equivalents producing catalogues at celebrated nonprofits—and often on a shorter, more frenetic schedule.

Hell, with artists repped by a mere five galleries comprising roughly one-third of solo exhibitions in American museums between 2007 and 2013, mega-galleries’ cash flow and influence have even seemed to transform actual arts institutions into extensions of their multi-location gallery networks. In that context, commissioning a museum-only architect might have been the last frontier left to cross.

In the piece announcing his forthcoming space, Zwirner recounted having to guide Piano away from his institution-honed instincts, saying, “I have to remind him we don’t need coat checks, we don’t need ticket booths, and the size of the lobby doesn’t have to be quite that large.”

But while, on occasion, Piano may get understandably confused about what he’s designing, one thing crystal clear to major collectors is that they won’t be seeing these institution-level attractions anywhere other than Zwirner, Hauser & Wirth, Gagosian and their select few mega-gallery competitors. For people who expect only the best at every turn, who else would they buy from?

[The New York Times]

Marta Minujín’s The Parthenon of Books at documenta 14 in Kassel. Courtesy Thomas Lohnes, Getty Images.


Finally, this week, on Wednesday Hettie Judah biopsied the art-exhibition elephantiasis for artnet News, putting pressure on visitors and professionals around the globe. She gave a pass to thoughtfully considered surveys and retrospectives at major museums and instead focused her concern on the “bannered biennials, triennials, quinquennials, decennials, and the outsized, multi-institutional exhibitions that have evolved in their wake,” all of them “so sprawling they induce panic.”

But rather than fall back on the stress she feels when attending these blow-outs—as familiar to me as I suspect it is to many readers—Judah relies on science. Her piece contains depressingly familiar statistics on the average visitor’s per-work viewing time, as well as a walkthrough of the lesser-known “exit gradient” effect, or the plateauing and subsequent plummet in attention that many viewers experience as they work their way through a single colossal art experience.

The question, however, is which numbers the people presenting these gargantuan events will prioritize when planning the next ones. At the close of last year’s documenta 14, the organization set a new attendance high, with “well over one million visitors” reaching both the Kassel and Athens sites. That figure bested documenta 13’s 905,000+ visitors by about 10 percent. The 2017 Venice Biennale also reported a boom in foot traffic, with visitor count up 23 percent from the 2015 edition.

I have questions about both shows’ visitor data. But let’s set them aside to acknowledge that in many, if not most, situations, what draws people in is not necessarily what fulfills them. Just ask any dopey character axe-murdered in a horror movie because they were lured to some secluded spot by a sexual advance too good to be true.

I think the scale of mega-exhibitions is a case where it can be dangerous to simply look at raw numbers without context or control measures. Would as many (or more) people have attended these events if they were the same size as their previous editions, let alone even smaller? What would quantifiable feedback about the quality of the experience have told us about the prevalence of Judah’s sense of exhaustion? (Here I’m thinking of the exit cards Hollywood studios give out to audiences after test screenings.)

It seems plausible, if not likely, to me that the sheer size of these shows had little to do with their improved visitor magnetism. In 2007, the last year that featured both La Biennale and documenta, Gagosian operated six galleries, and the economy produced 10 million global millionaires per Capgemini. In 2005, the nearest year for which I could find a definite figure (courtesy Georgina Adam), the number of worldwide art fairs was just 68.

In 2017, though, Gagosian maintained 16 galleries. The year prior—the most recent for which data was available—Capgemini estimated that the ranks of global millionaires had swelled to 16.5 million. And most estimates of the art-fair circuit now hover somewhere between 200 and 300.

In short, the professional art world is expanding dramatically on both the buy and sell sides. Meanwhile, research shows that museum attendance is now lagging behind general population growth. When it comes to the tumorous expansion of monumental exhibitions, then, the central question may be less, “How many people showed up?” than “Who the hell were they?” And I’m pretty confident that the answer last year was not everyday people.

[artnet News]

That’s all for this week. Til next time, remember: What’s happening off stage is at least as important as what’s happening in front of you.

Follow Artnet News on Facebook:

Want to stay ahead of the art world? Subscribe to our newsletter to get the breaking news, eye-opening interviews, and incisive critical takes that drive the conversation forward.